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Quentin Millington

Marble Brook

Consultant and Coach

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Tech culture: On-site gym or layoffs by email?

Tech companies recruited gifted people into splendid workplaces and then, a few years on, fired them via automated and impersonal emails. What can we learn about culture from such diverse employee experiences?
man's reflection on body of water photography representing disillusioned tech employee

Layoffs in the tech industry continue apace into the second quarter of 2024. 

Anxiety amongst employees, even those who survive the cut, is causing strain at work and at home. Is the culture of tech for or against the people who work in the industry?

Last weekend, a friend – Claire – learned, by email, that she had been fired from her job in tech. 

She felt the company had broken the promises it had made to her and her colleagues: “We thought the industry cared about its people; who believes that now?”.

Culture of promise

A few years back, everyone and his smartphone was dying to secure a job in tech. The work would be innovative and exciting. We would write code and find our place in the vanguard of change.

We were wooed by high salaries, stock options and dreams of a billion in the bank and enjoyed the status that came with our Silicon Valley email addresses; we revelled in the envy of our friends.

Of course, we were thrilled to meet with colleagues in soundproof enclosures, snooze in a nap pod and white-board over free food and drink.

We wandered to the yoga studio, massage room, games hall, dojo or gym. In buildings insulated with recycled denim, we were surrounded by exposed brick and reclaimed wood: why venture beyond the speakeasy on the third floor?

Our workplace culture was the standard by which others were judged. Banks, energy companies and other established businesses were no longer cool. The best people landed a job in tech. We thought we were valued.

Tech companies are now streamlining their businesses and restructuring teams

Culture of disappointment

Wind forward to 2024 and the employee experience feels different. 

Salubrious offices remain. But spats between tech companies and employees are rife. Whistleblowers are happy to scratch the itch of any curious journalist.

Women complain of a sexist culture and pay discrimination. For some, diversity feels like a buzzword. 

After years of tub-thumping about flexibility and work-life balance, return-to-office mandates fomented deep rancour.

Despite strong profits and soaring stock prices – when traditional industries often grew in staff numbers – many tech companies are now streamlining their businesses and restructuring teams for cost-efficiency and resource utilisation.

Fire by email

For over a year, headlines have reported how the tech industry has been firing people by email. Individuals such as Claire found themselves locked out of company systems and denied the closure of saying goodbye.

Such dismissals, widespread disaffection and other employee experiences call into question the value that the tech industry places on its people. But, truly, how surprised should we be?

Three aspects of culture

When we reflect on an industry, company or team we must consider three aspects, or levels, of culture. These are: artefacts, values and assumptions (to use the words made popular by management scientist Edgar Schein).

Artefacts are the things we see, hear and experience. Values are what we say we care about. Assumptions are our unspoken beliefs about what is right or wrong, good or bad.

Visible artefacts are real in that we hear, see and touch these often material elements of the workplace. 

A good salary, an office gym, free and healthy snacks – these dictate our impressions. But just as an adulterous husband can swipe his Amex card to buy flowers, artefacts can obscure the wider reality of workplace culture.

Espoused values appear on annual reports, the walls of head office, and in email signatures. 

These can be a yardstick for performance, for how everyone is expected to behave so as to secure good outcomes. More often than not, however, values are marketing slogans that fall short of employee or customer reality.

Tacit assumptions are beliefs, unspoken and rarely acknowledged, which at work shape how we tackle objectives and projects, how we relate to colleagues and customers, and how we view money.

Assumptions frame how we see the world, lead to experiences for employees, customers and society, and dictate outcomes.

Seduced by artefacts

Artefacts – impressive open-plan offices, meditation rooms and even high salaries – give a sense that people are valued. 

Even layoffs, arguably, are the fair price of experimentation, crucial if firms are to innovate well. Nor is it unreasonable that businesses should streamline their operations as technology evolves.

Few people expect the tech industry to operate after the fashion of a charity (despite players’ frequent and strident claims to advancing society’s interests). 

But these impersonal email dismissals, and other employee concerns, give further insight into the core beliefs that animate tech culture.

When a culture values people, organisations will find ways to make terrifying experiences such as layoffs at least bearable. 

Investments will be made in HR organisations, in leadership and in treating everyone as individuals. 

Managers will be given time to spend with their team members. The survivors of restructuring will be supported.

We … must scratch below the surface to understand what motivates the companies we work for

Sleight of hand

Apparent paradoxes, such as on-site gyms versus layoffs, are evidence of a pervasive sleight of hand. 

This can be seen elsewhere in the tech industry, and illuminates deeper beliefs – which employees, customers and society might do well to question.

The smartphone is an entrancing slot machine that manipulates our behaviour. Private data is taken under the name of ‘personalisation’ and then used for algorithms that maximise not societal benefit but shareholder return. 

The industry shouts about impressive artificial intelligence (AI) outputs yet whispers on the matter of societal risks.

As senior executives have been challenged on their industry’s impact on society, not all have responded with a meaningful commitment to satisfy interests beyond those of Silicon Valley. In some quarters (not all), obfuscation is rampant.

Essentially, after putting ‘talent’ on a pedestal, companies have made clear how, when technology moves on (as it invariably will), everyone is dispensable. In other ways, society and its institutions are similarly taken as a means to an end.

After putting ‘talent’ on a pedestal, companies have made clear … everyone is dispensable

Wider lessons

If the happy artefacts we saw some years ago represented the overarching culture of many tech organisations, such significant shortfalls would not have occurred or, by now, would have been corrected.

Of course, tech is not alone and other industries fail in parallel ways. But tech culture is reshaping the world at such a pace that the duty to be clear on what is really happening, and where it might lead, is especially onerous.

As employees, consumers and citizens we also must scratch below the surface to understand what motivates the companies we work for and with which we do business. 

Complimentary beer at work and 24-hour deliveries at home are seductive. But easy benefits don’t always translate into value that lasts.

If you enjoyed this, read more from Quentin Millington here.

Author Profile Picture
Quentin Millington

Consultant and Coach

Read more from Quentin Millington
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